TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Hundreds of Libyan activists rallied in three major cities across the country on Friday, denouncing the use of force by the country's unruly militias and decrying what they describe as political maneuverings by the nation's Muslim Brotherhood.
The turmoil appears to have sent jitters beyond Libya's borders, with the U.S. and Britain expressing concern over the prospects of continuous unrest in the North African country.
For nearly two weeks, Libya has been gripped by fear of armed conflict after heavily armed militias stormed and surrounded government buildings in the capital, Tripoli, blocking access to ministries in an attempt to push parliament to pass a contentious law that would prevent members of Moammar Gadhafi's regime from serving in senior government posts.
Lawmakers approved the bill during the weekend, with guns still drawn on the streets, and the militias gradually ended their siege in the capital. But there were reports late Friday that armed men had returned to the streets outside some ministries, including the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, after the day's protests.
The show of force has left many Libyans fearful over the country's rocky transition to democracy.
In Tripoli, activists took to the streets Friday with placards reading: "Law under the guns; constitution under fire" — a reference to both to the recent siege and the country's upcoming milestone, Libya's new constitution, which is to be drafted next year.
In the eastern city of Benghazi — the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that evolved into an eight-month-long civil war and ended with the ouster and killing of Gadhafi — hundreds of protesters staged a protest against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamist group is charged with engineering the new law, set to take effect in early June. The legislation could remove a whole class of post-Gadhafi officials — including the head of the current parliament, Mohammed al-Megarif.
While the law might also affect Brotherhood members and other ultraconservative Islamists, it would get rid of Brotherhood's top foe, Mahmoud Jibril, a liberal-leaning war-time prime minister and who enjoys wide popularity in the country.
Jibril was a top aide to Seif-Islam, one of Gadhafi's sons and heir apparent, before he defected to the rebels. His coalition, The National Forces Alliance, won the biggest number of parliament seats allocated for political groupings in the July parliament elections.
"No to Brotherhoodization of the state," read a banner held by a Benghazi protester. The term is used to express fear of the radical group installing its loyalists in government posts. Other protesters hanged an effigy of the ruler of Qatar, the country Libyans see as a key Brotherhood backer.
Similar protest took place in the eastern city of Tobruk, where advocates for a semi-autonomous eastern region are active.
After the fall of Gadhafi, Libya was left without a strong police force or unified military, and the new authorities had no option but to depend on former rebels and mushrooming number of militias to maintain law and order. However, the militias soon became a source of trouble and at the same time, the security deteriorated.
In Benghazi, series of assassinations and bombings of police stations have prompted diplomatic missions to leave over the past year. On Sept. 11, Islamic militants attacked the U.S mission there, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
On Friday, two bombs exploded outside police stations in different districts of Benghazi. No injuries were reported, but the state news agency said buildings and vehicles were damaged.
Last month, a car bomb hit the French Embassy in Tripoli, wounding three people and partially setting the building on fire. It was the worst attack on a diplomatic mission in Libya since Steven's slaying.
No group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks.
On Friday, an American military official said U.S. forces in Europe are on a heightened state of alert in response to a deteriorating security situation in the Libyan capital. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The alert order came a day after the State Department said it was advising U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Tripoli and all travel to Benghazi and other locations in Libya. It cited "ongoing instability and violence" and said the State Department's ability to provide consular services to U.S. citizens there was "extremely limited."
Meanwhile, Britain's Foreign Office says it temporarily withdrew some staff from its embassy in Tripoli in light of the recent political unrest.
Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.